...but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love; by truthful speech, and the power of God; with weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; though honor and dishonor, through slaner and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are ture; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished , and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.
Pastors are very ...hmm...interesting. In general. And specifically. They're a group that can be stereotyped, but none of them fit the stereotype as individuals. At least not the Lutheran ones I've met.
They're also scary. No, I'm serious; pastors are very frightening - "awe some".
All my life, I've looked up to my pastor. My first memory of my pastor was listening to Pr. Fritch's sermons, fascinated. Seems funny to remember now, but I'd always say to my parents (at the enlightened age of 5-8) that you could never stop in the middle of one of those sermons because you'd be terrified, but by the end, everything was alright and you were glad you listened. I think maybe it was the Law and Gospel....
Pastor was, well... to my mind, there was God, then Pastor, then my Parents, then Teachers. Parents seemed omniscient, but pastor seemed almost...fearsome. I mean, he spoke for God. Yeah, my parents spoke for God too, but they didn't deal in the holiness and forgiveness business. It was pretty clear to my young eyes that while Mom and Dad knew just about everything, they weren't perfect. Pastor, I wasn't so sure about. After all, he was the guy who always wore the clean white robe, preached about obeying God's commands and about Jesus death, and gave everybody communion. That was one impressive job! I was ok with God seeing everything. I couldn't see his face when he watched me sin. But I could sure see Pastor's face. I sure didn't want to do or say anything wrong when he was around. I wasn't sure what he would do. It seemed pretty certain that he wouldn't spank me like my parents, but if he even frowned at me, the world might as well come to an end. Pastor's displeasure was my greatest fear.
But I wasn't afraid of my pastor. No, far from it! I loved my pastors even more than I feared them. They were my pastors. They were my heroes. I've always wanted to run up and give my pastor a big hug, but (fortunately) I've only done that once, and that when I was 8yrs old. I never wanted them to get hurt or people to say bad things about them. With all my youthful reverence for the office, I was shocked that people would cuttingly criticize pastors. I was cringing, waiting for the lightning bolt or the earth to open up and swallow them. And I probably would have called down the lightning bolt if I had been able to.
My awe increased with the kindness of one pastor in particular. He was always ready to get down on my height and look me in the eye, listening to whatever I had to say. When he spoke, his words had such humility and gentleness that I was ashamed. I would have done anything for my pastor. I remember thinking during my communion blessing that the sensation of Pastor's hand resting on my head must be what God's hand felt like.
If asked about idolatry, I would have to conclude that my pastors were my idols between the ages of 4 and 12. Secretly, I prayed that God would have me marry a pastor.
Then pastors began to look a lot more human and less holy. I started to see the black shoes peeping out from under the robe. With that realization, I began to see the office and the man separate. Before that time, both had been merged into a sky-high, tender yet ruthlessly honest being in black and white called PASTOR. It was a jolt to realize that the man "Pastor" was not at all as tall as the sky, as clean as snow, or as honest and tender as I had percieved. Nor did he always wear black or white. Bummer!
(As an aside, I really like the black with the collar. I don't know why, but it makes me feel safe. Kind of like a security blanket - but not. The robe has the same effect. Maybe it is the same phenomena as mom re-arranging the cupboards without telling me. Perhaps I'm just too obsessive compulsive.)
After realizing this, it took me awhile to see the office side of "Pastor". I knew that he was truly giving me the sacrament and I trusted the absolution, but I thought of him almost like the cashier at a grocery store. The groceries were good regardless of the man. The man had nothing to do with the store or the groceries. He just happened to be there loading the cart and punching the buttons on the register, a figure whose presence commanded respect.
In a way, that is true. The authenticity of Christ's gifts does not depend on the person of the pastor. But there is another aspect too.
Pastors function in their "office". No, not the room they work in. Sometimes it's hard to believe pastors really "function" in that teeny room with the 'office' plaque on the door. Usually those miniscule cubicles are full of books and papers in various conditions of health, some gleaming and new, others falling apart.
No, pastors function within the "office" of Christ. As they do what he has given them to do, it is not they that do it, but Jesus Himself. Once I finally realized that, my whole view shifted. I could look at my pastor with out seeing the man. I could see Christ forgiving my sins, feeding me, clothing me in his righteousness, serving me. The respect I had had for pastors as a little child nearly doubled.
But it was not the same kind of fear. Before, I stood in awe of the man. Now I stand in reverence toward the office. Both kinds of respect are directed toward the same guy, but the former destroys the confidence of the respecter when the quality of the man is challenged. The latter looks with awe and confidence toward the one who speaks for Christ. The awe passes through the man in his office as it is directed to it's Lord. When you see a pastor in his office, his flaws just make you love him more (generally), because you realize that Christ uses 'jars of clay'. The power of God is more evident.
Still, pastors surprise me sometimes. I guess in my sinfulness I attribute to others the same selfishness that binds me. I've carefully trained myself not to expect much from other people (excluding my family). That way I won't be disappointed or get hurt. When people, pastors or otherwise, display the selfless love of Christ, even direct that selfless love toward me, I'm overwhelmed. It hurts too much to realize that my hard, wizened, calloused, ugly, sinful soul is being treated as if it were whole and beautiful, pulsing with love, soft, tender, and pure, while I so often treat the hearts of others like so much trash.
Anyway, all that long account is for the purpose of saying that the Epistle reading for Ash Wednesday really struck me. Pastors are truly poor in themselves. What they have to offer out of their own human nature, nobody would want. But they make us rich! They give us the most precious gifts of God our Father and our Savior Jesus Christ. There is no man more wealthy in all the earth than he who is forgiven. "Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity..."
And so this weak person holds the greatest power in the whole earth: Forgiveness of Sin. And yet Pastor does not "lord it over the flock" but serves them with it! This is amazing! This is in-credible. Why do they do it?
There is absolutely no reason for them to serve us, humanly speaking. That makes not a particle of logical sense. If we were to use logic, we would end up stating with Pope Leo (Giovanni de Medici) "God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it!"
The only key to unlocking this puzzle is the paradox of the cross. Strength in suffering, power in weakness, joy in agony. Why? Why does God become man? Why? Why does God suffer abuse? Why? Why does God die?
Love? What kind of love lets itself become abased, beaten, stripped, shamed, tortured, killed? That's just absolutely disgusting. A dead man, bleeding, naked, his twisted frame held to a rough dirty tree-trunk by rusted wrought-iron driven into his torn flesh, is a repulsive, lothsome image!
What kind of God is that?
Our God. The truth is that I am disgusting, repulsive, lothsome, because of my sin - my own natural self. The beauty of the image of our suffering God is that that torture is mine! It belongs to me by right. Once even by divine right. It is mine, my dues. No court in heaven or on earth could repeal the verdict of guilty! Damned!
But no more. Another man substituted his life for mine. His purity for my sin, His glory for my damnation, His majesty for my shame. That shame, sin, and damnation clings to the tormented body of Divinity suspended from the cross.
All that I have, He took. And he took it by force. For some strange reason, I don't want to give up my filth. The natural truthquestioner wants to cling to it, savor it, flaunt it, relish the pain I give myself. Our flesh is truly perverted in that it loves to hurt itself. Maybe that is why it resists unrestrained, selfless love.
I try to hide. I tell myself that my greed, lust, hurtful words, aren't really so bad. They're just mistakes. I'll do better next time. Sometimes I do manage to supress the guilt.But that doesn't take it away. If you hide a skeleton in a closet, all that means is that you must be careful not to let anyone near the closet. The more skeletons you have, the more closets you must have to keep them in. The more closets, the greater caution you must exercise in order to keep them from discovery.
The mind is the same way (from a scientific perspective). If you do manage to supress guilt, (and that is do-able) you must prevent yourself from thinking about anything that might lead to recall of that unsavory memory. That memory has become a skeleton and the synapses to it are a closet. You must avoid every thought associated with any event or action you feel guilty about. Over time, your reasoning will become increasingly illogical, because if you follow any thought logically, it will lead eventually to a closet and might even turn the door handle on a painfully guily skeleton. I have seen this plainly in certain familial aquaintances...
When I actually face my horrible mountain of dirty, filthy, rotten skeletons, I have only two options. One is to succumb to despair or punish myself even more for these. The only other alternative is to look to the repulsive image of a dead God. When I understand that the repugnace of the crucifixion is my own lothsomeness, the gory cross becomes beautiful. Lovely! Freedom, innocence and new life for me.
To say that the God-man took all that I have is only half true. In stripping me of my hoarded possesions, my skeletons and the grime clinging to them, He also gave me all that He possessed. Everything that belonged to the incarnate God is now mine. Purity, the rights of a son to the Father, innocence, a verdict of 'Not Guilty', glory, honor.
Now no court in heaven or on earth can condemn me. They cannot condemn God's purity and innocence, and that is what I possess!
It was a complete substitution. We switched places. I and God. He claimed all those skeletons along with their closets and those guilty wraiths destroyed Him.I am free from their domination, from locking them in closets, from closing off hallways to prevent friends from the hideous view, from the painful, sickening pleasure of peeping in to make sure I have hung on to my full quota of guilt fiends. I am FREE!
This is joy! This is the treasure my Pastor possesses and distributes for free! This must be the same joy that compels him to serve the pews full of miserable sinners with humility and grace. The same joy that enables him to show compassion to the compassionless and love to the loveless.
Perhaps this is the reason pastors serve. The cause of their poverty and the source of their riches!
Thanks be to God!